US-France Submarine Contretemps

American cheese will henceforth be known as liberté cheese. And not because of the metric system.

A significant rift has emerged between the United States and its oldest ally over Australia’s decision to buy American nuclear subs instead of outdated French hardware.

The news broke midweek to little fanfare:

David E. Sanger and Zolan Kanno-Youngs, NYT, Sept. 15 (“Biden Announces Defense Deal With Australia in a Bid to Counter China“):

The Biden administration took a major step on Wednesday in challenging China’s broad territorial claims in the Pacific, announcing that the United States and Britain would help Australia to deploy nuclear-powered submarines, adding to the Western presence in the region.

If the plan comes to fruition, Australia may begin conducting routine patrols that could move through areas of the South China Sea that Beijing claims as its exclusive zone and range as far north as Taiwan. The announcement, made by President Biden, Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain and Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia, is a major step for Australia, which until recent years has been hesitant to push back directly at core Chinese interests.

Australia has felt increasingly threatened, however, and three years ago was among the first nations to ban Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant, from its networks. Now, with the prospect of deploying a new submarine fleet, Australia would become a far more muscular player in the American-led alliance in the Pacific. The vessels are equipped with nuclear propulsion systems that offer limitless range and run so quietly that they are hard to detect. For Mr. Johnson, the new defense arrangement would bolster his effort to develop a “Global Britain” strategy that focuses on the Pacific, the next step after Brexit took the country out of the European Union.

“This is about investing in our greatest source of strength, our alliances, and updating them to better meet the threats of today and tomorrow,” Mr. Biden said in the East Room, flanked by two televisions showing the British and Australian leaders at their remote press briefings. “It’s about connecting America’s existing allies and partners in new ways.”

Mr. Biden and Mr. Morrison said Australia would not arm the submarines with nuclear weapons. Australia is a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which bans it from acquiring or deploying nuclear weapons.

The submarines almost certainly would carry conventional, submarine-launched cruise missiles.

“Let me be clear: Australia is not seeking to acquire nuclear weapons or establish a civil nuclear capability,” Mr. Morrison said.

Yet even conventionally armed submarines, staffed by Australian sailors, could alter the naval balance of power in the Pacific.

“Attack submarines are big deal, and they send a big message,” said Vipin Narang, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who studies the use of nuclear weapons and delivery systems among major powers. “This would be hard to imagine five years ago, and it would have been impossible 10 years ago. And that says a lot about China’s behavior in the region.”

Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told a regular news briefing in Beijing on Thursday that the submarine agreement would “seriously damage regional peace and stability, exacerbate an arms race and harm international nuclear nonproliferation agreements,” Global Times, a Chinese newspaper controlled by the Communist Party, reported.

Soon, though, in addition to analysis of the implications for “great power competition” like this . . .

Damien Cave and Chris Buckley, NYT, Sept. 16 (“Why Australia Bet the House on Lasting American Power in Asia“):

When Scott Morrison became Australia’s prime minister three years ago, he insisted that the country could maintain close ties with China, its largest trading partner, while working with the United States, its main security ally.

“Australia doesn’t have to choose,” he said in one of his first foreign policy speeches.

On Thursday, Australia effectively chose. Following years of sharply deteriorating relations with Beijing, Australia announced a new defense agreement in which the United States and Britain would help it deploy nuclear-powered submarines, a major advance in Australian military strength.

With its move to acquire heavy weaponry and top-secret technology, Australia has thrown in its lot with the United States for generations to come — a “forever partnership,” in Mr. Morrison’s words. The agreement will open the way to deeper military ties and higher expectations that Australia would join any military conflict with Beijing.

It’s a big strategic bet that America will prevail in its great-power competition with China and continue to be a dominant and stabilizing force in the Pacific even as the costs increase.

. . . we got an angry backlash from the French:

Roger Cohen, NYT, Sept. 16 (“In Submarine Deal With Australia, U.S. Counters China but Enrages France“)

President Biden’s announcement of a deal to help Australia deploy nuclear-powered submarines has strained the Western alliance, infuriating France and foreshadowing how the conflicting American and European responses to confrontation with China may redraw the global strategic map.

In announcing the deal on Wednesday, Mr. Biden said it was meant to reinforce alliances and update them as strategic priorities shift. But in drawing a Pacific ally closer to meet the China challenge, he appears to have alienated an important European one and aggravated already tense relations with Beijing.

France on Thursday reacted with outrage to the announcements that the United States and Britain would help Australia develop submarines, and that Australia was withdrawing from a $66 billion deal to buy French-built submarines. At its heart, the diplomatic storm is also a business matter — a loss of revenue for France’s military industry, and a gain for American companies.

Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s foreign minister, told Franceinfo radio that the submarine deal was a “unilateral, brutal, unpredictable decision” by the United States, and he compared the American move to the rash and sudden policy shifts common during the Trump administration.

Underscoring its fury, France canceled a gala scheduled for Friday at its embassy in Washington to mark the 240th anniversary of a Revolutionary War battle.

“This looks like a new geopolitical order without binding alliances,” said Nicole Bacharan, a researcher at Sciences Po in Paris. “To confront China, the United States appears to have chosen a different alliance, with the Anglo-Saxon world separate from France.” She predicted a “very hard” period in the old friendship between Paris and Washington.

The deal also seemed to be a pivot point in relations with China, which reacted angrily. The Biden administration appears to be upping the ante with Beijing by providing a Pacific ally with submarines that are much harder to detect than conventional ones, much as medium-range Pershing II missiles were deployed in Europe in the 1980s to deter the Soviet Union.

It escalated to absurd levels by yesterday afternoon:

Roger Cohen and Michael D. Shear, NYT (“Furious Over Sub Deal, France Recalls Ambassadors to U.S. and Australia“):

Calling American and Australian behavior “unacceptable between allies and partners,” France announced on Friday that it was recalling its ambassadors to both countries in protest over President Biden’s decision to provide nuclear-powered submarines to Australia.

It was the first time in the history of the long alliance between France and the United States, dating back to 1778, that a French ambassador has been recalled to Paris in this way for consultations. The decision by President Emmanuel Macron reflects the extent of French outrage at what it has a called a “brutal” American decision and a “stab in the back” from Australia.

The reaction from natsec types has been predicatable.

  • Georgetown’s Caitlin Talmadge: “You may call it backstabbing, but unless it’s from the submarine region of France it’s just sparkling outrage.”
  • Strategy Bridge’s B.A. Friedman: “I just don’t know what we’ll do if continental Europe decides to start investing in its own defense.”
  • Defense One’s Kevin Baron: “Folks saying this ambassador recall is an extreme response to a failed armed deal are perhaps missing the bigger and deeper affront–one very close to Macron’s heart and legacy: France’s ability to lead significant change toward a Europe-first transatlantic security balance.”
  • POLITICO’s Blake Hounshell: “For those just tuning in to this France fracas, keep in mind that Macron faces a tough re-election fight next year. Standing up to Anglo-Saxon arrogance plays well in Bourdeaux, I guess.”
  • Middle East hand Andrew Exum: “As an American, I have a very high tolerance for hypocrisy. (Anything else would itself be hypocritical.) But man, watching France — France! — work itself up in moral outrage over an arms deal while, even better, invoking the sanctity of alliances is … well really something.”
  • NATO scholar Steve Saideman: “This really diminishes France more than anything. Go away or I shall taunt you a second time!”

I retweeted all of those, both because they’re good lines and because I agree. But I also retweeted this form AEI’s Kori Schake: “Reminder that France is a major contributor to global security and a valuable U.S. ally.” It came in reaction to news that French forces had just killed a major Islamic State figure.

Yet, while I fully agree with Schake that France is one of America’s more valuable allies as well as our oldest, I also concur with Exum, Friedman, and others that France has often worked against the security interests of the United States and NATO. Aside from having spent decades outside of NATO’s defense structure, it has spent about as long trying to undermine the transatlantic alliance with a Europe-only model. And it has repeatedly cozied up to Russia, most infamously in the sale of Mistral-class helicopter carriers that was a longstanding bone of contention until the deal was scrapped under pressure following the Ukraine invasion. And, certainly, it makes sense for the United States to work even closer with Australia, which is less powerful than France but generally speaking more aligned with US interests. And which has a much stronger incentive to counter China.

Yet, given the presence of Francophones like Tony Blinken and John Kerry in Biden’s top foreign policy team, why was this handled so poorly? David Sanger (“Secret Talks and a Hidden Agenda: Behind the U.S. Defense Deal that France Called a ‘Betrayal’“) reporting yesterday:

The United States and Australia went to extraordinary lengths to keep Paris in the dark as they secretly negotiated a plan to build nuclear submarines, scuttling France’s largest defense contract and so enraging President Emmanuel Macron that on Friday he ordered the withdrawal of France’s ambassadors to both nations.

Mr. Macron’s decision was a stunning and unexpected escalation of the breach between Washington and Paris, on a day that the two countries had planned to celebrate an alliance that goes back to the defeat of Britain in the Revolutionary War.

Yet it was driven by France’s realization that two of its closest allies have been negotiating secretly for months. According to interviews with American and British officials, the Australians approached the new administration soon after President Biden’s inauguration and said they had concluded that they had to get out of a $60 billion agreement with France to supply them with a dozen attack submarines.

The conventionally powered French subs, the Australians feared, would be obsolete by the time they were delivered. They expressed interest in seeking a fleet of quieter nuclear-powered submarines based on American and British designs that could patrol areas of the South China Sea with less risk of detection.

But it was unclear how they would terminate the agreement with France, which was already over budget and running behind schedule.

“They told us they would take care of dealing with the French,” one senior U.S. official said.

The Australians knew they had a receptive audience. Mr. Biden, who has made pushing back hard on China’s territorial ambitions a central tenet of his national security policy, told aides those French-made submarines would not do. They did not have the ability to range the Pacific and show up unexpectedly off Chinese shores — adding an element of military advantage for the West.

The Australians, by all accounts, never made clear to the French that they were preparing to cancel the deal, which had taken years to negotiate. And in meeting after meeting with their French counterparts — some including Mr. Biden and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken — the Americans did not give France a heads-up about their plans to step in with their own designs, the officials said, asking for anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomacy. It was a classic case of diplomatic avoidance.

Mr. Biden’s top aides finally discussed the issue with the French hours before it was publicly announced at the White House in a virtual meeting with Mr. Biden, Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain and Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia.

That . . . seems odd. It’s perfectly understandable that a new administration assessed the situation and saw an opportunity to bolster the security architecture of the region. And I suppose it makes sense to get the deal hammered out before letting the French know, so as to avoid leaks calculated to undermine the deal. But why the rush to announce it? Why not wait until after the US-French 240th anniversary celebration? For that matter, why not have an olive branch prepared to soften the blow? There apparently wasn’t much consideration given to the matter:

In this case, American officials said the decision to toss over the existing French-Australian contract, and replace it with one that would bind Australia technologically and strategically to the nuclear submarine program, generated virtually no internal debate, participants said. The reason was straightforward: In the Biden White House, the imperative to challenge China’s growing footprint, and its efforts to push the U.S. Navy east, to the next island chain in the Pacific, reigns supreme.

Again, the calculus makes perfect sense to me. Indeed, I think this is obviously a better deal for the Aussies and better for us. But it was hardly unpredictable that the French would be furious. As Rick Noack notes in this morning’s WaPo (“Why the French are so furious at the Biden administration over a derailed submarine deal“) this was, to coin a phrase, a big effing deal:

[The submarine contract] was of virtually unrivaled economic significance to France’s defense sector, said Pierre Morcos, a French visiting fellow at the D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. The deal was crucial for “a whole network of small and medium enterprises” in France that were supposed to benefit from it, he said. The economic significance of the Australia deal has been compared to a landmark 2015 agreement between India and French company Dassault Aviation to supply 36 Rafale fighter jets.

Second, France stands to lose strategically as a result of Australia bowing out of its previous commitment. When the deal was struck, the French government celebrated a “strategic partnership … for the next 50 years.”

“This overall framework is now jeopardized,” Morcos said.

French officials also believed that their deal with Australia was an example of U.S.-French cooperation because the Australian branch of Lockheed Martin, an American company, was expected to be involved in the project.

A third key reason for the French anger is the way the deal between Australia, Britain and the United States was announced. A French official said Thursday that Paris learned of the decision only through media reports — even though it had been negotiated among the three participants for months.

And, indeed, as NBC reports (“Biden’s apparent indifference to AUKUS deal’s impact on France fueling fury, experts say“), the rollout may have been as big a problem as the switcheroo.

For France — which on Friday recalled its ambassadors to the United States — the move might have torpedoed what little trust had been rebuilt after four years under former President Donald Trump, experts said.

As Biden celebrated the new AUKUS pact with Australia and Britain on Thursday, French officials expressed outrage over the deal, which brought that nation’s 2016 agreement to build submarines for Australia to an abrupt end.

“France’s position for a very long time … has been to say that the U.S. is an ally, but the U.S. is pivoting away from Europe and cannot fully be trusted,” said Georgina Wright, head of the Europe Program at Institut Montaigne, a nonprofit transpartisan think tank based in Paris.

Now, France can feel vindicated in that stance, she said, with Biden proving that “when (the United States) makes a decision, they will go ahead with it and they won’t think twice about their allies.”

Of Biden, he said the president’s “brutal, unilateral and unpredictable decision” was a reminder of something his predecessor “used to do.” The Trump comparison is considered a “major insult” in France, Frédéric Charillon, a political science professor at France’s Clermont Auvergne University, said Thursday.


Wright said that while the submarine deal itself would have angered French officials, it is the way the news was delivered that likely struck the biggest blow. “The decision itself was a big blow for industry in France,” she said, with the country losing out on a $40 billion deal. “You cannot really overstate the … industrial side,” she said in a phone interview Friday. However, Wright said, what has really strained France’s relationship with the U.S. “is how the decision came about.”

At the end of the day, bolstering our alliance with Australia and improving her naval capabilities were the right thing to do. And France will get over it, having no real alternative. But this simply should have been handled more deftly and, given the talent, experience, and proclivities of key players on the Biden team, I’m honestly surprised that it wasn’t.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Lounsbury says:

    In this particular instance, the French government objections are rather ripe with hypocrisy as it rather fits their own modus operandi of playing dirty mercantilist pool commercially. Defence contracts or wind turbines. Having plenty of direct experience with the French state associated ‘private’ actors playing dirty pool on deals I have been associated with, my eyes could not roll hard enough… a bit of their own medicine.

    Macron’s election season and his need to guard his flanks against the very petty nationalist Front National with its strong anglophobic contingent likely explains most of the escalation.

  2. DC Loser says:

    It’s really amateur hour at Foggy Bottom and 1600 Pennsylvania as far as foreign policy is concerned. I had hope the return of functioning adults to our institutions would let me sleep at night again, but two major fiascos within a month does not give me great hope for better times. It’s not everyday you plot to take away a major jobs program from an erstwhile ally. That the Quai d’Orsay and the Elysee Palace basically learned about this from news reporting is just terrible on our part. Oh, and the part about nuclear subs being quieter than diesel-electric and AIP subs is just pure nonsense.

  3. MarkedMan says:

    It’s unfortunate that France’s histrionics is detracting from the impact of this deal. The Chinese have been exerting tremendous pressure on Australia for more than a decade to reduce cooperation with the West and instead see itself first and foremost as a Pacific Rim State. And, of course, with China being the pre-eminent Pacific Rim power and de facto leader. The Obama administration were quite effective at putting the brakes on this trend not just with Australia, but all over Asia. And in the past five years or so the Chinese themselves have severely damaged their own efforts by becoming more bellicose and intimidating, and especially by demanding that anyone of Chinese descent a certain loyalty to the “true China”. This has especially stirred up the Australians.

  4. MarkedMan says:

    @DC Loser: It’s worth asking why both the Americans and the Australians felt the need to keep this from the French until the end. The assumption that they were unaware or indifferent to the French reaction and they could have better managed it is just that, an assumption. The Australians and the US very deliberately kept them in the dark, with the Australians continuing to negotiate the whole time.

    I think it’s a reflection of the shallowness of American and World journalistic political analysis that the focus has become France’s hissy fit. I’ve seen no speculation on the much more important (and interesting!) question on what they were worried France would do if they found out the deal was going south.

  5. JohnMcC says:

    Will not re-trace my google-tracks to give a link but apparently there have been several delays and several price adjustments that the Aussies felt upset about before the negotiations that led to the present nuclear sub deal.

    Still, I can’t help but agree that I’d expected greater sensitivity to Euro-allies from a Biden foreign policy team.

  6. James Joyner says:

    @MarkedMan: I agree that the bolstering of the US-UK-Aussie alliance against China is the bigger story. But I would argue that that France’s hissy fit could have been contained with better statecraft.

  7. Michael Reynolds says:

    Not gracefully handled, perhaps, but strategically significant and helpful. The French are throwing a fit, but it’s the Chinese who are hurt, and they have no one to blame but themselves. Their absurd claims of territorial waters is pure bullying. They’ve got Taiwan arming up, the Philippines leaning back to the US, Vietnam may be casting flirtatious glances our way, and now that we are free to tell Pakistan to fuck right off we can hopefully bring India more into the naval supremacy fight.

    It’s hard to defeat geography (hat tip to Vietnam’s jungles and Afghanistan’s mountains) and there are a lot of impediments in the way of Chinese naval power. We still own the oceans.

  8. OzarkHillbilly says:

    But this simply should have been handled more deftly and, given the talent, experience, and proclivities of key players on the Biden team, I’m honestly surprised that it wasn’t.

    Obviously I have no idea one way or the other, but all the above analysis puts the onus squarely on DC with very little if any mention of the UK or AUS. Seems a bit myopic to me.

    As far as China goes, I read this this AM:

    China’s rhetoric about the cold war misses an important point: the structures of that era were binary and rigid. But Aukus suggests that the liberal order can reconstitute itself through “minilateral” deals, in which different constellations of powers act together over different issues. The “Quad” of Japan, Australia, India and the US is the best-known example of this so far, but Aukus may be a sign of more to come. Those deals may anger individual members of that order in the short term (British anger at the US over Afghanistan, French anger at Australia over Aukus), but they actually show that the liberal order is more robust than surface noise suggests. It’s not a cold war, but a series of constantly changing adaptations.

    Beijing seems to know this, which may be why its response has sounded so half-hearted. China will be less concerned about the specifics of Aukus, as there is plenty of western military hardware in the region already. The real challenge to China is, why do so few of its neighbours back its complaints about the new pact? Singapore, a country that has spent decades balancing between the US and China in the region, expressed hopes that Aukus would “complement the regional architecture”, which made it sound more like an elegant Georgian fireplace than a deal over deadly weapons. China’s failure over the past two decades has not been its failure to remove the US from the region, but its continuing inability to persuade local countries that American departure would be a good idea.

    The author, “Rana Mitter is professor of the history and politics of modern China, University of Oxford, and co-author (with Sophia Gaston) of the report Resetting UK-China Engagement: 2021 update” for whatever it’s worth

  9. Lounsbury says:

    @DC Loser: Treating defence procurements as jobs programmes is rather shit foreign policy and defence policy. The French themselves made their bed by not performing well in the Australians’ eyes in respect to the contract (and Australian own industrial interest) and given French state track record of playing dirty pool with defence sales, their whinging on is sheer hypocrisy.

  10. HarvardLaw92 says:

    I agree that it made sense to toss over the loser of a French deal, but this was handled very badly. The French tendency for hypocrisy – which I won’t argue with – aside, the mood on the street here is one of an affront to national pride. The average guy feels insulted. It’s not just the Élysée and the Quai d’Orsay that are angry.

  11. MarkedMan says:

    @JohnMcC: The US has a Pacific rim world view that envisions cooperation and mutual strengthening of dozens of nations. My, admittedly limited, understanding of the French goal in the region is much more about tactical, one-on-one, cooperation. My speculation is that China would have been much more comfortable with the Aussies entering into a long term agreement with France than with the US. France is not seeking to curtail China’s rising power in the region and the US alliance most certainly is.

    But all this is very shallow speculation on my part and it’s why I regret this is being covered with all the sophistication of a high school dating scandal, with hurt feelings as the juicy lead.

  12. wr says:

    @HarvardLaw92: “The average guy feels insulted.”

    And Macron can now be the bold French leader spitting in the face of the backstabbing USA, just in time for his election.

    Almost makes me wonder if this was all worked out between Biden and Macron in advance…

  13. HarvardLaw92 says:


    Difficult to say. The immediate reaction I’ve heard was that they feel like this was all engineered by the “backstabbing Brits” in order to steal the deal for themselves / f**k France to their own advantage, and the US just played along with them because it also worked to American advantage. Difficult to say how accurate that one is, but there is little love lost here for the British even under the best of circumstances, and these are definitely not the best of circumstances, so accurate or not it has staying power. I don’t see it blowing over quickly. They’re pissed.

  14. MarkedMan says:

    @James Joyner: Total speculation here, but what if the concern was that France, upon learning they were in danger of losing the contract and the international cred that goes with it, would get a leak out to China? It alters the idea that we could have brought France on board earlier.

    The real news here isn’t that they pulled it off without France having an inkling, but they pulled it off without China getting wind of it. This is a major win, because if China had learned they would have been able to bring incredible commercial pressure to stop it. Australia’s exports to China are a huge part of its economy.

    The US press and domestic politicians focus on France’s hurt feelings have them potentially missing a much, much larger story. The fact it doesn’t even occur to them to ask why the US shut out France up to the last minute shows a tremendous lack of sophistication.

  15. HarvardLaw92 says:


    Not seeing it. However the announcement was handled, China is still in a position to exert enormous pressure on Australia, and will continue to be in that position right up until the moment these boats actually go operational. Lijian has already issued a statement sending that shot / thinly veiled threat across Canberra’s bow. If anything, they’ll arguably be more motivated to turn the economic screws now than they would have been under the French deal.

  16. MarkedMan says:


    they’ll arguably be more motivated to turn the economic screws now than they would have been under the French deal.

    That’s my point. The Chinese would have preferred the French deal. If they had gotten wind of it before it was complete and started tightening the screws on, say, mining exports, it would have raised pressure to go with the French. By keeping the Chinese out of it until the deal was done, the pressure cannot be “the French deal is better, why are you causing us pain by considering the Americans?” It can only be, “the Chinese are angry at us so we have to give in!”, a much tougher obstacle to overcome.

    A major victory in the alliance against China. There should be at least some interest in finding out how that happened.

  17. HarvardLaw92 says:


    My point is that China’s ability to turn the screws on Australia doesn’t go away just because it got blindsided or because the French deal is (hypothetically) now dead in the water. We should not view this as being a done deal and China as being powerless to stop it just because it’s already been announced. These boats, best case, would be scheduled to go into operation in 2040, and there is a whole lot of infrastructure that will have to be built in Australia before actual construction of the boats can begin. China is, and will continue to be, in a strong position to monkey wrench that from ever happening.

  18. MarkedMan says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Why am I not surprised it was from the Guardian and not a US source?

  19. MarkedMan says:


    China’s ability to turn the screws on Australia doesn’t go away

    You are absolutely right. China can exert tremendous pressure on China. That’s why the Aussies are looking for deals such as this in the first place. But you have to agree that the level of pressure needed to scuttle an announced deal is considerably higher than one in negotiations where a viable alternative existed. The Chinese will need to use a much heavier and obvious hand. They may chose not to wield such power or, if they do, it will exacerbate the regional resentment against Chinese strong arming.

  20. Michael Reynolds says:


    The Chinese will need to use a much heavier and obvious hand. They may chose not to wield such power or, if they do, it will exacerbate the regional resentment against Chinese strong arming.

    My sense as well. I don’t think the Chinese have our ability to pretend to treat smaller nations as equals. Bullying and bribes only go so far.

    For all the talk of China defining the next century, I’d still rather be holding our cards. We can close the oceans to China and shut down their exports at will. Obviously given the economic incentives no one wants to do that, but Beijing can’t be comfortable knowing that we can block them if things get tense.

  21. Just nutha ignint cracker says:


    Almost makes me wonder if this was all worked out between Biden and Macron in advance…

    I’m not inclined to believe that our government is capable of such levels (and varieties) of statecraft, but it certainly makes a good question.

  22. Andy says:

    A big factor in this is the national security importance of French defense exports.

    Starting way back with De Gaulle, France consistently pursued a policy of military independence which necessitated domestic production of pretty much everything France needs. But France is both too small and also underinvests in defense so the needs of the French government are insufficient to maintain a defense industry.

    Enter exports. France exports more military hardware than anyone except the US and Russia. And that’s long been the case. France is also willing to sell to just about anyone- France has never had a policy of tying defense sales to things like human rights, pretty much like the Russians and Chinese.

    But the importance of exports are primarily strategic because they are intended to subsidize the French defense industry and allow France to be able to produce just about everything it needs domestically. So exports are not merely a jobs program, but part of France’s overall and long-standing strategy for its national defense.

    Now, $66 billion may not sound like a lot to American ears, but it is a lot for France, particularly for the industries related to submarine construction. Those industries are likely now threatened which in turn threatens the industrial base that France relies on for its own naval and submarine production. It remains to be seen if France can find more exports for submarines, or if the French government will either have to order more for itself, or simply subsidize this sector. I don’t know the numbers here, but I expect that France thought this deal would keep these industries in business for the next decade or two.

  23. MarkedMan says:

    @Andy: A good perspective. Thanks.

  24. MarkedMan says:

    From Josh Marshall:

    The question is why we appear to have blindsided the French and let their inevitable anger become a major blow up. …But reading the latest reporting the US and Australia seemed to believe that if they didn’t act in secret the French and China would find out and work to sabotage the deal. So the US made the decision – quite simply – to act behind France’s back. Where we erred, if we did, is not realizing just how angry the French would get.

  25. JohnSF says:

    Militarily there doesn’t seem to any real advantage for the US or Australia in Australia deploying US/UK derived boats rather than French derived ones.
    Diesel/electric submarine may sound old fashioned: they aren’t.
    They can can be as quiet as nuke powered; even quieter in some circumstances. And depending on design elements, better suited to shallow seas (e.g. much of the East Indies archipelago).

    Also, France had said it was prepared to switch the drive systems to nuclear. After all, the French build and operate their own SSN’s; and the French design was actually a de-nuked version of the nuclear Suffren class.

    So, this may have related to Australian annoyance at delays and cost hikes in the deal (including possible attempts by France to divert more sub-contacting work to French firms? Wouldn’t surprise me.)
    As opposed to any inherent military factor.

    What I’m having trouble seeing is much of an upside for the USA.
    Certainly contractors will make money, but in terms of geopolitics that’s small potatoes for the US.
    Be interesting to see where the reactors get built, though.
    Options seem to be BXT in US or Rolls Royce in UK
    Design base would probably have to be either the US Virginia or UK Astute; and who gets to do systems integration?

  26. JohnSF says:

    I was about to add a comment on the economics of French defence and enabling Great Power levels of capability.
    But @Andy: beat me to it.

    So a couple of further points.

    France has been the only European country to maintain a fairly continuous military presence in the Indian Ocean/South Pacific. The UK has paid visits, bur RN operations generally focus on N Atlantic/Med.

    France has around 2 million citizens in the SE Pacific islands; maintains four infantry regiments, in the area; and regularly operates a carrier strike group and/or amphibious assault group in the area; in addition to about a dozen locally based frigates and patrol ships.

    They do NOT like being treated as irrelevant afterthoughts in the matter.

    Furthermore, a more secure basis for French power potential would be a genuinely integrated European defence procurement system.
    One problem is that in the EU submarines are built by France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Sweden and Spain.
    Just as with aircraft (Eurofighter Typhoon vs Mirage Rafale), armoured vehicles, etc etc, the politics of a Europe of independent state defence policies leads to horrendous multiplication of effort and cost burdens.

    Hence the long term French policy of building up a European strategic industrial base.
    The problems being:
    – a lot of other Europeans say, “and how much of said procurement spend will end up getting spent in France;
    – and the complacent, mercantilist tinged, fretful wishful thinking that rules in Berlin: “Wandel durch Handel” indeed.

  27. DC Loser says:

    @Michael Reynolds

    This is why China has been busy with Belt and Road Initiative, to have overland routes to its markets outside of the Western Hemisphere.

  28. JohnSF says:

    Related to above: France have been trying to woo Germany (they are always trying to woo Germany) by saying “Oh, yes we share your concerns about the Americans being to alarmed by China” (note: they don’t) “So let us develop the European independence we need. Oui? Now, this small contract for the new euro-frigate, to be built by Thales; and sign here, for the new air defence system; and here…”

    Note; this is not commercial self-seeking (well, maybe a bit) but a genuine belief that Europe needs to be able to stand up in its own right, need France to lead it in dong so, and that the Americans cannot be fully relied on. (Or the British)
    A view that dates back at least to the Suez Crisis.

  29. Lounsbury says:

    @Andy: Yes, and a contributing factor as French mercantalist approach to such transactions appears to have significantly contributed to Australia issues with the contract.

    @JohnSF: The French view may rather more accurately be rendered as a genuine belief that France (meaning the French elite) should be leading, never having accepted loss of Empire (see Algeria, war and post-War), and that they should be leading Europe, whose ‘standing up’ on own really is actually “being the French vehicle for power.”

    Understandable to an extent but the pretence… or perhaps French blindness.

  30. Michael Reynolds says:

    @DC Loser:
    Yep. But that’s a lot of ‘Stans to build in and maintain access through going in one direction, and Russia to cross in the other. Many a slip twixt cup and lip. And they have other problems with geography, like the fact that they share a long border with an almost unpopulated but resource rich area of Russia. The road system the Chinese are building would be a convenient way to move military forces. I wonder how happy the paranoid Russians will be about a future where they’re either the tail to China’s dog, or forced to position more force on the border as China builds rail and road .

  31. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @MarkedMan: Because I’m too cheap for a Wapo or NYT subscription? Why do you care? I link it, you get to judge.

    ETA: oh, and for the record, they had a piece up from a defense contractor too. It seemed a bit over the top to me.

  32. dazedandconfused says:

    I’m at a loss to imagine a graceful (from the perspective of the French) way to be screwed out of a $66 billion dollar deal. Seems like searching for a way to be gracefully booted in the nuts.

  33. JohnSF says:

    Could have tried making it out to be a “new partnership”, giving the French a contact for say Mistral amphib. carriers, or Airbus transports.
    Assuming the Australians don’t want to pay up, a “regional” package e.g. US provides funds to Indonesia or Philippines, (or even Taiwan?) they just happen to spend it on some French kit.
    Maybe US forks over for a “joint base development” project in New Caledonia.

    Still going to sting, but at least you can take the edge off it.

  34. JohnSF says:

    @DC Loser:
    @Michael Reynolds:
    In addition to the whole “how much do we really want to trust Russia?” question for China, it all comes down to cost.
    Roughly speaking, for standard containerized goods, cost per kilometer for rail is double that for ships.
    Absent subsidies, for non-time urgent goods, its non-competitive.
    If you can ship, you do ship.

  35. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @JohnSF: While I was in Korea, the conventional wisdom among the Koreans I spoke to was that the only real firm industrial base the US has left is weapons and that is what drives the US desire to seek weapons business wherever it can be found–within the limitations ignored by France, Russia, and China. Combine that with the firm belief that more truly and always is better and “make it up on the volume” and even seemingly insignificant business becomes important.

  36. MarkedMan says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: No slight intended. I was remarking on the fact that the US press led with “US and Australia dissed their BFF France right before the prom!” and the Guardian actually had a thoughtful analysis.

  37. Jay L Gischer says:

    I spent four years reading stories about how Trump was dismantling the State Department – just letting people go, or driving them out, and not hiring replacements, etc. etc. There was a lot about that the first year in office, and the trend appeared to continue.

    So, I wonder if the “poor handling of a good decision” could be tied to that. Could we have expected, with more State Dept. professionals in place, that secondary characteristics of the initiative (and yeah, how you tell the French is a secondary characteristic, not a primary) were not given a professional polish?

  38. MarkedMan says:


    What I’m having trouble seeing is much of an upside for the USA.

    Here’s the upside. For the past 15 years or so China has become increasingly beligerent in the Pacific, making it clear they consider the era of American influence over and it’s time for the Chinese to take their rightful place. Specifically, they long maintained that they would only negotiate with states on a one on basis. They have been exerting increasing pressure on the Aussies to back away from the US and, up until 3-5 years ago were having some success, but then started overplaying their hand.

    France’s attitude has been, “We don’t care about Chinese encroachment in the Pacific, that’s the US problem and Europe shouldn’t get involved in it.” In other words, exactly what the Chinese want to hear. By picking the US over France, it strengthens the US “Together, we stand” position and weakens the French “Everyone for themselves” one. It’s a big win for the US.

    And, more speculatively the fact that the French so publicly lost might be considered a win too, getting the message out US indifference to the French undermining US strategic goals ended with Trump leaving office.

    Coincidentally, another big win came this week when the Chinese has petitioned to join the TPP. When Clinton was negotiating this under the Obama administration, the Chinese were apoplectic. China wouldn’t recognize it, they would only negotiate state to state, blah, blah, blah. But they couldn’t stop it and by petitioning to join, they are admitting they can’t. Now they want to undermine it from within.

    So two big wins in a week, directly carrying over the late Bush era/entire Obama era policy vis-a-vis the Pacific as if Trump was merely a bump in the road. But sure, the French got their feelings hurt. There’s the real news. \sarcasm\

  39. JohnSF says:


    France’s attitude has been, “We don’t care about Chinese encroachment in the Pacific, that’s the US problem and Europe shouldn’t get involved in it.”

    It’s not quite that simple.
    If it were, France would never have agreed to sell Australia state-of-the-art attack submarines in the first place.
    Nor would they maintain military force in the region on the scale they do, the only European country with a permanent presence in the area.
    It is true that in intra-European diplomacy France has stated the need to avoid being caught between the potential miscalculations of Beijing and Washington. However, everyone outside Germany realises the main targets of this are the Germans themselves and their relentless devotion to “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well” righteousness.

    If the French had ever meant to seriously play the role of impartiality between China and the United State, they could have, for instance, offered to sell China state-of-the-art submarines, or air superiority aircraft systems, etc.

    France has refused to sign a Memorandum of Understanding on China’s Belt & Road system.
    And has proposed joint patrols for preservation of freedom of navigation in the China Seas.

    Macron himself has said of China that there should be no illusions:

    …it is a vision of globalization that has its virtues in terms of stabilizing certain regions, but it is a hegemonic system.

    On the whole France is wary of Washington possibly moving to reactive “confrontationalism” re. China, but that is far from being aligned with China, or even neutralist.

    Unless you want France to align with China?
    Be careful what you wish for…

    Incidentally, the Chinese proposal to join CPTPP is not a win for the US, as the US, due to Trump’s stupidity, is outside it. If China did join and the US remained outside, this would be a massive blow to the US position.
    Not going to happen, IMO, but US being on the outside is still a big self-imposed handicap.

  40. JohnSF says:

    Just thought, there’s a reason the UK may be *ahem* critical to this deal.
    IIRC the McMahon Act, and non-proliferation treaties, forbids transfer of weapons-grade fissile materials from the US to another country.
    UK and US submarine reactor designs, unlike the French ones, use weapons grade uranium as fuel.
    But the UK-USA Mutual Defence Agreement of 1958 overrides McMahon.
    I wonder if the legalities are such that MDA enables UK to act as middleman for a transfer to Australia?
    Paging international arms regulation treaty lawyers…

  41. MarkedMan says:

    @JohnSF: I agree 100% that the Republican sabotaging of the TPP was an epic fail, one that demonstrated yet again that the party no longer has any pretense of taking the interests of their own country seriously. And I hope you are right that China will not end up a member while US sits outside.

  42. JohnSF says:

    And in the small print: the boats are going to be bigger and more expensive.
    So Australia is going to from 12 boats to only 8.
    Some Australians arguing if they were going to cancel the French deal, might have been better to go for a German or Swedish based diesel/electric design and deployed 16 boats!
    Maybe not as useful for deployment in S China Sea/Philippine Sea, but maybe better for securing the Sumatra to Samoa archipelago.

    Also, some Australians arguing that if they are going to tie themselves to the US versus China, Washington needs to look to its credibility in regard to not shafting allies.

  43. Matt Bernius says:

    @DC Loser:

    It’s really amateur hour at Foggy Bottom and 1600 Pennsylvania as far as foreign policy is concerned.

    I wonder how much of these recent problems have to do with the loss of mid and upper level talent at the state department during the Trump years. You cannot rebuilt a team through rehiring in just a few months.

  44. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @MarkedMan: Got it. That was almost my take*. My apologies.

    * I was just pointing out, “Here’s a less sensationalist view of the whole kerfuffle.”

  45. Richard Gardner says:

    I’m thinking ADM Rickover is spinning in his grave fast enough to generate electrical current.

    Lots of interesting discussion here (and on some submarine groups I’m on). A couple of things stand out:
    – The contract with France was already falling apart with cost overruns, delays (first boat in 2035?), and disputes over where work to be accomplished (“was supposed to cost $36.5 billion, Politico reported, but the cost had nearly doubled by this year to an estimated $66 billion”)
    – This (building nuclear subs) will take a long time to accomplish, at least a decade if fast tracked (more money). It is possible that the start would be leasing a couple of older (688) boats to Australia, like how India got its start leasing a Victor III from Russia.
    – Australia has no nuclear power infrastructure so significant nuclear maintenance would likely be done by the USA (Guam-based tender, or Yokosuka Shipyard). I suspect US Naval Reactors would have safety oversight, similar to how Navy SSP does with the UK’s Trident missiles (less UK warheads).

    To answer JohnSF’s question on the restrictions on bomb-grade fissile material (HEU), there is no international treaty on this. The NPT is from the 60s and back then there were numerous research reactors using small amounts of HEU (the restriction isn’t on the material, rather on it being used for a weapon). For US restrictions (mostly Atomic Energy Act of 1954, vice 1946 McMahon), they could be amended, or more likely we would lease OZ the reactor core.

    Other discussions:

    Why Australia wanted out of its French submarine deal

    French Attack Boat Design, Costs Opened Door to Nuclear Australian Sub Says Expert

    Budget overruns and culture clashes over long vacations plagued the $50 billion submarine deal Example: French wanted to stop everything each August, like in France.

    I see this as a ruse to get out of the problematic French contract. What will happen over the next few years (and longer) depends on Australian internal politics, plus China. This is serious money and has to be approved by their Parliament. I wouldn’t be surprised to something entirely different rise from the ashes (like Air Independent Propulsion). What is certain is that the majority of the non-nuclear portion will be built in Adelaide from a USA or UK design (guess, USA reactor, UK sub design).

    The New Zealand Prime Minister has already made a statement to the effect of, “How dare you!”

  46. JohnSF says:

    @Richard Gardner:
    Kiwi left really miffed because ANZUK Treaty is core to their defence relations, but “nuclear free zone” has been dear to the hearts of NZ Labour since the French nuclear tests in the S Pacific.
    Now Australia goes unrighteously nuclear.
    Short circuit! System crash! LOL.

  47. JohnSF says:

    @Richard Gardner:
    Also, reading some Aussie commentary that whole sorry saga shows why they should have gone for Japanese Soryu/Taigei option in the first place.
    More on that by Claire Berlinski

  48. JohnSF says:

    @Richard Gardner:

    …or more likely we would lease OZ the reactor core

    Or we could, and call it Her Majesties Glow In The Dark Pile (leased at reasonable fees, please apply No.10 Downing St.)
    Seriously, don’t underestimate the lust of RR/BAE to monetise this if at all possible.
    And I need to research this, but I have a vague feeling there is some provision in the UK/Aus agreements from the 1940s/50’s about nuclear technology transfer.

  49. Richard Gardner says:


    don’t underestimate the lust of RR/BAE to monetise this if at all possible.

    Indeed. But I don’t know how much HEU the UK has to spare. Our enrichment facilities were shut down 25+ years ago but we have a enough sitting on the shelf (repurposed from USAF stockpiles for future weapons) to be building nuclear reactor cores past 2100. Assuming these nuclear boats get built, I expect the reactor compartment components will come from the USA or UK as it wouldn’t be cost effective for Australia to create the infrastructure necessary. So Electric Boat and Newport News (BWXT for the reactors, formerly Babcock & Wilcox), or RR/BAE.

  50. Ken_L says:

    It’s a misconception to see this as a story about Australia buying submarines. It’s a fundamental re-alignment of Australian defence policy, and as far as I’m concerned, a horrifyingly mistaken one. The deal, on the rudimentary information released, will basically integrate the Australian military into that of the United States. America has had troops stationed here for some years; that presence will increase. Moreover US planes and ships will be permanently based here. In other words, the functionality of our military will become as dependent on American hardware and technological support as was the late lamented Afghan army’s. Not only that, but we will be compelled to join in any future US military operations in the region, or risk being left suddenly defenceless.

    To surrender autonomy in this way would have been irresponsible at any time. To do it when the US has just demonstrated it’s capable of electing complete maniacs to the White House defies comprehension.

  51. JohnSF says:

    @Richard Gardner:
    IIRC about 20 tons or so. How much is needed for a sub reactor is not readily available information.
    The thing is, the French designs use LEU, and the whole French nuclear power system can produce LEU on a scale of potentially thousands of tonnes per year.
    Amusingly, in terms of fuel security, the French reactors are probably the better bet.

  52. JohnSF says:

    Welcome to NATO, mate.

    Seriously though, you’ve been part of ANZUS since 1951. It really doesn’t alter that much, apart from ohmigawd news headlines.
    And any democracy is capable of electing a maniac at any time. Just as any non-democracy is capable of having a psychopath assume power.
    *waves at Beijing and Moscow*

  53. JohnSF says:


    …we will be compelled to join in any future US military operations in the region, or risk being left suddenly defenceless.

    If you were to get into an argument with the US, would the subs suddenly, magically, become non-functional?
    Nope, no more than the RN Trident systems would in similar circumstances.
    Might go tits up longer term, but not overnight.

    And if US-China war erupts, that’s going to be the least of your worries.

    Anyway, best way round it, lobby Canberra to buy everything from Britain.
    Reasonable prices and after sale service guaranteed. Trust me.

    Or else buy the Japanese submarines you should have bought in the first place?

  54. Ken_L says:


    If you were to get into an argument with the US, would the subs suddenly, magically, become non-functional?

    For all practical purposes, yes. They would be effectively blind and deaf. In any event it’s not the subs that we will be relying on for defence – they are offensive weapons. We’d suddenly be cut off from the entire infrastructure and intelligence systems on which our defence forces would have been trained to rely. And yes, it’s quite conceivable that the software in various battle systems would contain a poison pill that the US could activate to render them useless. Our new armored personnel carriers have been delayed because of concerns about the security of Israeli IT software that was purchased for installation in them.

  55. JohnSF says:


    For all practical purposes, yes…the software in various battle systems would contain a poison pill

    You’d better inspect them better then; and work out counters.
    I assure you, RN is entirely confident in the capacity of our SSN’s and SSBN’s to function whatever the level of US hissy fit may be ongoing.

    And if you assume that your prospective ally is going to betray you in such a fashion, best not to ally in the first place.
    First step, cancel ANZUS!
    You could try buying Chinese!

    Or, you could buy nothing at all, and simply believe that if US vs China war erupts you would be able to sit safely on the side-lines?
    Best of luck with that ambition.

    Some people had that goal re. Germany and Japan in the 1930’s.
    Unfortunately, when Powers collide, one tends to be forced to choose a side.

    (Also, re. naval forces, if you can actually define defensive vs. offensive, please let me know)

  56. Richard Gardner says:


    The piece Clair Berlinski published (but not by her, a reposting though she is commenting) was a fascinating read. Thanks for the link

    I then went into the LEU/HEU reactor fuel discussion. Usual Non-Proliferation players, Monterey Institute (old name, now James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey (MIIS) just down the street from Naval Postgraduate School), FAS, etc. Recent US/UK HEU reactors never have to be refueled which takes them off-line for years. LEU naval reactors are closer to commercial plants but need much more frequent refueling (and are designed for it, shorter off-line – couldn’t find anything in English) but if you have a year long crisis you’re going to run out of gas on at least one, plus you need more nuclear maintenance infrastructure and waste disposal.

    As for “Her Majesties Glow In The Dark Pile,” we are using the BAE propulsor on the Columbia Class, and Her Majesty’s Explosive (HMX) as the solid rocket fuel in the Trident missiles.

    I remember when France rejoined the NATO/OTAN military structure (after pulling out under DeGaulle) in 2009. As James Joiner wrote: 2007 2009
    (can you believe it, under 10 comments back then!)
    Long term ally? Not exactly

    Even more entertaining, a French submarine is visiting Norfolk – FNS Améthyste. Not going to stop a port visit.

    I haven’t seen mention of Australia’s warfighter “needs” for submarines – i.e., what do they need them to do. Lay mines? Protect shipping? Maintain Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC)? Go how far from Australia? Destroy New Zealand (outlier)? I’m sure the documentation is out there, just that you must look at what you actually need, vice a bunch of bells and whistles and shiny objects (or under-seat air conditioning in your car).

    The more I read, the more I feel this was Australia realizing the French deal was bad and deciding to ditch sunk costs. This is just a side note to the cooperation with the UK and USA, but big A$.

  57. Ken_L says:

    @JohnSF: I’m not interested in a semantic argument, but military hardware designed to interdict and destroy hostile forces threatening the Australian mainland are primarily defensive in nature. Hardware designed to operate with the US military in operations that don’t directly threaten the Australian mainland are prinarily offensive in nature.

    As examples: submarines designed to intercept and sink hostile ships approaching our territorial waters are defensive. Submarines intended to go help America fight in the South China Sea are not.

  58. Richard Gardner says:

    And supporting Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia, RP, Taiwan? It isn’t just about the USA.

  59. Ken_L says:

    @Richard Gardner: Australia has military alliances with the first three. They don’t oblige us to shape our whole defence hardware acquisition program on the assumption we’ll have to go to war to defend them. I’m not sure anyone knows what the Philippines national security strategy is, and as far as I’m concerned, the sooner China settles the Taiwan issue by integrating it into the republic, the better.

  60. Richard Gardner says:

    the sooner China settles the Taiwan issue by integrating it into the republic, the better.

    So much for The Global Paradox. China (Kina) uber Alles.
    Got it, you are a Chinese BIGOT, take your vile Chinese nationalism elsewhere. You are part of the disgusting CCP agit-prop program. Government sponsored lies. I’ve not seen you before at OTB (my first posting was about 2004) so I may have missed you, but I think I’m correct – you are representing the CCP. I support an independent Taiwan.